AND suddenly, Tottenham Hotspur boss Harry Redknapp is left ruing his decision not to sign South Africa’s finest defender Bongani Khumalo before the transfer window slammed shut last week.
When his England defender Michael Dawson lurched over on the Wembley turf during the second half of last Friday’s 4-0 win over Bulgaria, Redknapp and his Spurs followers had their hearts in their mouths.
With Ledley King already reduced to training on the massage table and Jonathan Woodgate so injury prone he’s not even in the current 25-man squad, Spurs are, as our ‘Arry likes to say: “Down to the bare bones” at centre-back.
And Khumalo, who spent a “highly successful” trial period at White Hart Lane last month, is back home, waiting to captain South African champions SuperSports United against Mamelodi Sundowns at the HM Pitje Stadium on the 18th after South Africa’s 2-0 win over Niger.
If the big move comes, it won’t be until the window creaks open again on January 1.
Dawson will be out for “at least eight weeks” after spraining his ankle and knee on England duty, leaving Spurs with veteran French defender William Gallas, Younes Kaboul and Cameroon’s Sebastian Bassong to cope at West Brom on Saturday.
All they had to do, according to SuperSports United chairman Khulu Sibiya, was offer a little more money and they would have had Khumalo, the 23-year-old sensation who scored against France and was a World Cup ever-present in South Africa.
Sure, north London has not always been a slick route for South African footballing émigrés, just ask Mbulelo OJ Mabizela, who came over from Orlando Pirates and sank without trace after scoring a cracker on his debut in 2003. Mabizela is now back home with the Platinum Stars. Not because he couldn’t play, but because he was all at sea in London.
But Khumalo, articulate, contained, ever-so-serious, clearly believes he is ready to follow in the footsteps of former South Africa captains Lucas Radebe, still a hero in Leeds where they named a pop group after his beloved Kaizer Chiefs, and Aaron Mokoena, who taught Portsmouth fans exactly what an Mbazo can do in football boots.
In this strange Premier League versus Media Madness world, Khumalo just has to glimpse Benni McCarthy’s plight at West Ham or this week’s Wayne Rooney headlines to know what to expect.
The response is all it could be: “I enjoyed my trial with Spurs and all I can say is that, at this stage, the deal is pending and an announcement will be made later.
“As a professional you need to carry yourself very well. It’s vital you train well and set a good example on and off the field. I live in that lifestyle.
“When you play, and you watch the stands, it adds more energy to your play. You know what it means to the fans.
“You have to stay motivated, stay strong mentally. The next step would be to move overseas, to play in the European leagues.”
"It would be a dream come true if the transfer materialises. I have always wanted to play in England and obviously in the Premier League, and it would be a dream to move to Tottenham. If it happens, it would be up to me to make sure it works.
"Playing in the Champions League would be another dream. I think the Champions League is the closest level to the World Cup in terms of quality and the play, so it would be great to make the move."
And for linguists reading this, relax. He really does talk that way. Khumalo explains: “My mum was an English teacher at a high school, so English was always the main focus. I speak English the way I was taught.”
Oh, and his late father was a lecturer in African languages at Unisa. If only Fabio Capello’s parents had been something similar, the England camp might be a lot happier right now.
But I digress.
Radebe, who changed the way South Africans are seen in England, insists: "Bongani is destined for great heights in his football career,” while Glyn Binkin, who represents both players, is not going to let wheeler-dealer ‘Arry have his man on the cheap. Before the expected move in January, Binkin warns: "At this stage, absolutely nothing has been finalised and discussions are ongoing between representatives of the various parties.”
Khumalo, born when his parents were working in Swaziland in 1987, is 23. Resident in Mamelodi near Pretoria from the age of two, he started out at Arcadia Shepherds, the once-famous capital club responsible for grooming such luminaries as Aston Villa’s European Cup winner Peter Withe and former Blackburn, QPR and Coventry star Roy Wegerle.
Then he moved on to the University of Pretoria before signing for SuperSports United, who have dominated the South African Premier League for three years despite their marked lack of support.
There, he is under the watchful eye of South Africa’s own Alex Ferguson, Gavin Hunt. A no-nonsense coach who told me England were rubbish before the World Cup even started, Hunt says: "People should realise that Bongani is a player who has the quality to play in one of the top leagues in Europe.
"He has matured so well in the last few years and I am so pleased that he has been given the chance to experience this World Cup in South Africa."
Hunt, who has himself been linked with jobs in England, is aware of interest in Khumalo from Rangers in Scotland, and from elsewhere in Europe.
But for Bongani happily remains with the Matsatsantse, and lists his favourite Premier League player as Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic.
He drives Seat Leon Cupra (“the beast”), smiles too infrequently and concludes: “We all want to play for big teams overseas and if the opportunity comes I’ll jump at it.”
FOOTNOTE: Bongani, if you do come over in January and you need a sympathetic bloke to show you London, I’m here pal. Despite the fact I grew up playing for Arcadia Shepherds’ arch-rivals Berea Park, you’re welcome to share my house with my four crazy kids any time. All I ask in return is that you turn out, just once, for my team Goldhill Baptists on the common in Chalfont St Giles, recently voted Buckinghamshire’s Best Kept Village. It’s about half-an-hour from London. We’re the current national over-35 FA Cup holders. I’m the other centre-back. You won’t regret it.